Who will engineer the engineers?
In the first century AD, the Romans forged the sentence “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” — Who will watch the watchmen?
For centuries it has symbolised the dilemma of how to control those who have been given power over the rest of us.
Now, this motto needs an update.
Originally the people in focus were the watchmen themselves: the armed forces, the police. The phrase then came to be applied also to politicians and government in general. If we grant someone the privilege of ruling us — how can we make sure they won’t abuse that power?
But lately an entirely new group of people has gained an enormous power over us. In a very few years the explosive evolution of digital technology has given a new class of entrepreneurs, engineers, software developers and computer geeks an unprecedented power over the lives of billions of fellow humans.
A lot of what they have given us has been of tremendous benefit. Recently, however, we’ve started to find disturbing evidence that not everything they have created is so benevolent.
Or the lock at the gym which assumes that a person with the title “doctor” cannot be female.
These examples may seem trivial — bugs easily fixed. But they’re only at the trivial end of a spectrum of algorithms and other software that …
• give them less generous financial credit, and
- give them fewer opportunities for a job.
Then, add the robo-debt system that wrongly targets vulnerable welfare recipients as cheaters.
Or the computer programme that redraws the borders of constituency maps so that a minority vote for a sitting candidate turns into an unfair victory.
Or the taxi company’s system to evade inspection by the authorities.
These examples, and countless others, make more and more of us ask: how can we ensure that this new digital class does not abuse the power it has claimed (or, more correctly, that we have given it by buying and using its products and services)?
It’s a fact that few of these systems or services were created with bad intent. The harm they caused was, with a few nasty exceptions, a consequence unforeseen.
However, it was certainly not unforeseeable.
In some cases, perhaps, the explanation for such glitches or unintentional side effects might be a kind of idealistic absentmindedness.
But a lot of the harm must have come from a fundamental blindness to humanity. That there are people of colour in the world is obvious to most of us, and creating a sensor that does not recognise them just reflects the ignorance of the creator.
Two millennia after the Roman empire, the question about who will watch our watchmen needs to be updated. The new, critical question must be, in resounding Latin:
Quis machinabitur ipsos machinatores? Who will engineer the engineers?
“Mathematics, engineering and computer science are wonderful disciplines — intellectually demanding and fulfilling. And they are economically vital for any advanced society. But mastering them teaches students very little about society or history — or indeed about human nature. As a consequence, the new masters of our universe are people who are essentially only half-educated. They have had no exposure to the humanities or the social sciences, the academic disciplines that aim to provide some understanding of how society works, of history and of the roles that beliefs, philosophies, laws, norms, religion and customs play in the evolution of human culture.
We are now beginning to see the consequences of the dominance of this half-educated elite.”
Indeed: Educating the Silicon Valley elite has proved expensive, as Kara Swisher writes in the New York Times.
Without thorough understanding of human experience, the tech industry will continue to create services that harm or exclude.
A key effort, then, must be to amend the education of engineers: teaching them ethics, history, human behaviour.
But it’s not only schools that teach. We are constantly taught and formed by the values that are expressed in the media, by laws, by politicians’ decisions, by corporate priorities.
We must reclaim a broader recognition of human values in our society. Quite literally, the engineers can’t be left to their own devices. Quis machinabitur ipsos machinatores? Who will engineer the engineers?
The answer can only be: ‘We must’.
PS: I did not invent the phrase “Who will engineer the engineers?”. I found it — typically enough — in a work of fiction: Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, a story about the Soviet Union and Stalin’s attempt to transform society entirely on scientific and rational principles … of course in everyone’s best interest. Today’s engineers and tech entrepreneurs would be wise to study that lesson of history.